Evidence based

10 Essential Oils to Battle Back Pain

Last updated: 
October 6, 2019
Natalie Pertsovsky
Researcher and author
Dr. Juliana Bruner, DPT
Researcher and author, Physical Therapist

If you’re one of the 16 million Americans suffering from chronic back pain, chances are you’re exhausted in your quest to find relief (1). From seeing multiple doctors and specialists, to trying over-the-counter and prescription medications, you haven’t gotten the results you want.

In 2017, the American College of Physicians (ACP), the second-largest physician group in the US, updated their guidelines for managing low back pain. After researching the effectiveness of dozens of treatment options, both medical and non-drug, they found that the best treatments for acute and subacute low back pain are non-drug treatments.

With that in mind, it may be time to use natural remedies to fight back against your lumbar pain. One of the longest-known solutions is the use of essential oils.

Why Try Essential Oils?

Back pain is one of the most common complaints doctors receive and is the leading reason for missed work days (1). Common conditions like sciatica and rheumatism manifest through joint pain, nerve pain and muscle tension in the back (2).

Doctors often recommend nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen (advil) and naproxen (aleve). However, if used over a long period of time, these options carry negative side effects like stomach pain and ulcers. Even worse are highly-addictive opioids,  which have historically been over-prescribed by doctors, resulting in the current opioid crisis (3).

Aromatherapy, which refers to the medicinal or therapeutic use of essential oils absorbed through the skin or through smell, dates back to medieval Persia (4), offers a simpler approach to pain management which may be worth trying.

Essential oils are derived from plants using steam distillation, mechanical pressing, or grating and peeling (5). Using these processes, the liquid oil solution retains the natural smell and flavor of its source.

Despite the long history of essential oils being used to treat sore muscles and back pain, there is limited research on its effectiveness. Nevertheless, early results are positive. A 2016 study showed that the use of aromatherapy with essential oils resulted in significant improvement in pain (6). Another study released in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences revealed that essential oils exhibit anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain relieving) properties (7).

Summary

Essential oils are a simple home remedy for pain relief with few side effects relative to traditional pain medications. Scientific evidence on their effectiveness is mixed, however, and so drug treatments like prescription-strength NSAIDs may be necessary if your pain does not respond to home remedies and over-the-counter medication.

The 10 Best Essential Oils for Back Pain and How They Work

When applied topically, the following essential oils have been shown to relieve backaches and soothe inflamed muscles:

  1. Ginger oil

    Often used for cooking, ginger has strong anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. These characteristics make ginger essential oils highly effective in mitigating pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis (8). Lab studies have even indicated that certain ginger extracts can work preventatively to combat joint breakdown and inflammation.
  2. Peppermint oil

    Peppermint is another plant with powerful analgesic qualities (8). It naturally contains menthol and limonene, which are widely used for treating pain. Like ginger oil, peppermint oil is commonly used to reduce the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. If applied onto sensitive or raw areas, a burning sensation may occur.
  3. Frankincense oil

    Frankincense is an aromatic resin that comes from Boswellia trees and has been used in traditional medicine for centuries (9). It has been shown to treat inflammation, pain and stiffness. Minor skin irritation may occur.
  4. Eucalyptus oil

    Eucalyptus, native to Australia, is a well-known topical analgesic and forceful anti-inflammatory. Distilled from the leaves of a eucalyptus tree, this oil can be used to treat muscle aches and joint pain, providing soothing relief. If applied onto sensitive or raw areas, a burning sensation may occur.
  5. Holy Basil oil

    Also known as tulsi or tulsai, holy basil oil has been used for centuries in the Ayurvedic tradition to treat a range of conditions, including nerve pain (10). It contains 1.8-cineole, which has anti-inflammatory properties, and linalool, which has reduced swelling mice and rats.
  6. Lavender oil

    One of the most popular essential oils, lavender oil has a number of healing properties (11). In addition to being calming and stress relieving, lavender essential oils are analgesics that work well to ease joint pain.
  7. Chamomile oil

    Chamomile, known for its calming abilities as a tea or in a topical cream, is also helpful for managing inflammation. The soothing properties of this oil have been shown to help with muscle spasms and rheumatism (11).
  8. Clary Sage oil

    Compared to common sage, the leaves of a clary sage plant are much larger and have more healing properties. Traditionally used to relieve menstrual cramps and reduce pain during labor, clary sage may improve circulation and reduce swelling associated with back pain (11).
  9. Rosemary oil

    Rosemary can be silver, gold or green-striped. The green variety is frequently used for its medicinal attributes, including its ability to calm inflammation and allay joint pain (11).
  10. Turmeric oil

    In addition to being a delicious spice, turmeric acts as an anti-inflammatory (8). The active ingredient found in turmeric oil, curcumin, has been found to protect joints against swelling.

Summary

Several essential oils exhibit analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties, which can help reduce musculoskeletal pain and swelling. Different oils are best suited for different underlying conditions, so you should carefully assess your symptoms and select the one that’s right for you.

How to Use Essential Oils

Essential oils can be applied directly onto the skin or used olfactorily (by sniffing).

When used topically for a massage treatment, dilute your chosen oil with six teaspoons of a carrier oil, which will prevent the potent essential oil from irritating your skin. Coconut oil, jojoba oil and almond oil are common carriers.

For inhalation during the day, dab a few droplets of your essential oil onto the pulse points of your wrist. Bring your oil with you and re-apply throughout the day.

A third and less common method of application is diffusion. Pour fresh water into the diffuser and add some drops of your oil for a gentle scent in your home or office. Refill the water every few days to ensure freshness.

If you want to create your own unique essential oils blend, you can combine complimenting oils in a tincture solution. However, it’s important to make sure you’re mixing oils that work well together. Be sure to consult an aromatherapy expert or certified guide before experimenting with your blend (12).

Summary

Essential oils can be applied topically or inhaled, depending on your preference. Follow proper safety measures when using essential oils, especially dilution with a carrier oil if you choose to use topical application.

Benefits and Final Recommendations

Incorporating essential oils into your routine requires commitment. But, when used in conjunction with other practices like regular exercise and a low glycemic diet, it can greatly reduce inflammation and back pain.

The American Chiropractic Association estimates that Americans spend as much as $50 billion on back pain-related healthcare per year (13). When factoring in lost wages and lower productivity, that figure rises to over $100 billion. Using essential oils to target muscle pain is an affordable remedy that you can experiment with at home.

Essential oils carry much less risk than stronger treatments like opioids. Essential oils generally have few side effects and no addictive properties. However, oils should still be used cautiously before establishing a routine and should never be consumed.

If your skin is sensitive or you’re allergic to one of the components in an oil, it’s possible you will develop a rash or slight irritation. When using an oil for the first time, make sure to patch test the diluted liquid. If there is no irritation after 24 hours, the oil should be safe to use.

As more people turn to alternative forms of treatment for their ailments, essential oils are becoming increasingly accepted as a simple home remedy worth trying for chronic pain. Scientific research indicates that essential oils can be a viable option for back pain relief.

The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

Research Citations

Researched, written, and reviewed by:
Natalie Pertsovsky
Researcher and author
Natalie is a freelance writer with experience at a number of publications, including Bloomberg and The Rooster Magazine. She holds a degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.
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Dr. Juliana Bruner, DPT
Researcher and author, Physical Therapist
Dr. Bruner is a physical therapist who is highly trained and skilled in helping people overcome their physical ailments to live the best life they can. She is also a writer who enjoys spreading knowledge about various topics in the PT and healthcare industry.
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This article is based on scientific evidence, written by experts and fact checked by experts.

Our team of board-certified physical therapists, physicians, and surgeons strive to be objective, unbiased, honest and to present both sides of the argument.

This article contains scientific references. The numbers in the parentheses (1, 2, 3) are clickable links to peer-reviewed scientific papers.